It was early in January of 1997 and my daughter was scheduled for surgery in Vancouver in a few days. I went to the bus depot in Dawson City to find out if the bus would be coming in on schedule. At that time, the bus depot was in the drug store on Front Street. It was cold – minus 45 degrees Celsius, and the ice fog lay thick in the still arctic air.
A crowd of grim-faced, apprehensive people had already assembled, waiting for the bus to come in. Some of them had been trying to leave town for several days. Those whose flight, like ours, had been cancelled due to the cold weather, were counting on the bus if they were going to make their connecting flights in Whitehorse. The weather forecast was a topic of great importance.
Nobody was foolish enough to attempt to drive to Dawson in that weather, but the bus might make it through. Finally, there was a phone call and we were told that the bus had to turn back at Carmacks. We were prisoners of the North, unable to escape. Vancouver was as far away as Mars, as far as we were concerned. We Yukoners call it “Outside.” With a capital “O.”
The term “Outside” implies there is an “Inside,” though I don’t recall any Yukoner ever refer to him or herself as an “Insider.” There is, however, an invisible bond that we share when the weather encloses us within a frigid prison, making it impossible to travel to that other world out there.
Our northern sense of Outside is a product of distance, geography and weather, moderated by travel, communication, deprivation and even economics. Despite the innovation of jet service, the Yukon is still a long way from everywhere. Distance and weather make it so. The extreme cold that we experience here (the coldest temperatures ever recorded in Canada occurred in the Yukon) simply makes our isolation complete.
Josiah Spurr, an American geologist, visited the Yukon valley in 1896. Floating down the Yukon River below the mining camp of Forty Mile, he encountered some prospectors camped near Mission Creek. One of them was eager to learn the results of the Harvard-Yale football game of the year before.
“When did you leave the Outside?” he asked the geologist. Spurr went on to elaborate: “The Outside means anywhere but Alaska – a man who has been long in the country falls into the idea of considering himself in a kind of prison, and refers to the rest of the world as lying beyond the door of this.”
That is the first reference to the term “Outside” that I have been able to find in the Yukon historical record.
The miners who were camped on the upper reaches of the Fortymile River, one of the first gold-bearing creeks discovered in the Yukon, were the most isolated of all. So rare was mail from Outside that to men on the remote gulches in the outback, any glimpse of the written word was cause for celebration. “A trademark on a pick handle becomes fairly eloquent in that solitude,” noted on observer.
A round-trip correspondence by letter could easily take 15 months. One miner on the Fortymile River at the time claimed that they were so starved for the written word, that when the first grub arrived in the spring, the miners would all gather in someone’s cabin, where they would appoint a chairman, who would read, to an entranced audience, the instructions on the baking powder boxes.
The cranky little steamers that plied the Yukon River in those days, and supplied the miners with food and other things, couldn’t always cross the flats farther down river. If that occurred, it meant shortages of everything and even starvation for those upstream. Until the Klondike gold rush, few dared challenge the treacherous conditions of the Chilkoot Pass in the winter. The sense of imprisonment was complete if a miner owed money to the traders, as most did, and therefore could not leave even if he wanted to.
Later, transportation to Dawson City was regularized with train and river steamers in the summer and overland stage in the winter. Even so, there were periods during the fall freeze-up and spring break-up when crossing the Stewart, Pelly and Yukon Rivers made the trip virtually impossible.
The improvements did not come quickly. In 1927, for example, Morley Bones, who ran a fox farm at Kluane Lake, remarked that he hadn’t picked up his mail from the previous year until he made the arduous journey to Whitehorse in July.
In the 1930s, air travel started to close the gap between Dawson and the outside world, but it was a slow transition, still out of the reach of most people’s pocket books. By the 1950s, bridges, roads and the automobile made the trip from Dawson much easier. Yet I have spoken to the people who lived at Bear Creek, just a few miles up the Klondike Valley from Dawson City. Even in the 1950s and ‘60s, most of them did not have cars, so a trip into town was still a special event.
The conditions of isolation were even more pronounced for those who lived in the goldfields surrounding Dawson. There were some who lived there who might get to Dawson City once or twice a year. For some, it might be even longer. One roadhouse operator still in business on Dominion Creek in 1938 hadn’t been to Dawson City, less than 100 kilometres away, since the gold rush.
In order to ensure that Christmas gifts arrived in time, they had to be ordered by catalogue months in advance so that they could be shipped before the last river steamer was pulled out of the water in October. Holidays Outside were infrequent, time-consuming and expensive, so most people didn’t bother.
Today, we are apt to hop on a plane and fly to Hawaii, Arizona, or Central America, either for a holiday, or to spend the entire winter. From Whitehorse, people can fly halfway around the world the same day. Satellite communications and the Internet provide us with links to the Outside that are instantaneous. Are we losing that sense of Inside/Outside that was once so strong?
Personally, I still feel that the Yukon is a special place, separated by distance and geography. I am staying at home this winter, in a state of semi-hibernation. I don’t have any plans to go Outside, although I might just go outside in a few minutes to bring in some more firewood.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org